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As empty planes touch down in quiet Colorado communities to meet federal rules for taking COVID-19 relief money, airlines are pleading with the Department of Transportation to let them suspend service. And when their requests are refused, airlines are getting creative with flights into Colorado’s regional airports as travel collapses under the weight of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Airlines that have taken federal support under the CARES Act must maintain “reasonable and practicable” service. The major airlines are struggling under those definitions. Delta, American and United recently filed exemption requests to suspend flights into dozens of regional airports, including Eagle, Aspen, Gunnison and Montrose in Colorado. 

The CARES Act requires airlines to retain a minimum level of service to airports they served the week of Feb. 29, 2020 or the week of Aug. 4, 2019. That can be a challenge for airlines that provide different levels of service to resort destinations in the winter than in the summer. 

Last week the DOT denied service exemptions requested by American seeking to curtail service into Eagle, Aspen and Montrose, while allowing the airline to cut flights to Hawaii. The transportation agency also last week denied United’s request to cut service to several smaller destinations, including Gunnison after the airline inexplicably listed Aspen’s airport — a nearly 170-mile drive from Gunnison — as a viable replacement for service. 

“The decisions the DOT is making in terms of which markets to grant exemptions for and which ones to deny are definitely precedent setting and something the airlines are all paying close attention to,” said Bill Tomcich, an Aspen-based consultant with Airplanners, which works with airlines and communities in Colorado. “It’s getting really interesting out there as airlines work through dramatically reduced demand. No one wants to see the airlines flying empty airplanes.”

Read the rest of the story at The Colorado Sun.

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